NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: Thirteenth place in the Eastern Conference (35-38-9, 79 points); Fired head coach Ted Nolan in July, after disagreeing over the direction of the team. Nolan believed in sticking with the veterans on the team, while Snow wanted the direction of the team to be focused on youth.
Under the guidance now of rookie head coach Scott Gordon, the New York Islanders improved their defense by bringing in the versatile Mark Streit from Montreal; added another veteran in Weight; and saw popular backup goaltender Wade Dubielewicz leave for Russia and the KHL.
With the personnel struggle between Nolan and Snow over with, this team is officially in rebuilding mode. The roster sports plenty of youth that have come up through the Islanders system sprinkled among the veterans. The development of players like Blake Comeau, Sean Bergenheim, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo will be vital if the franchise wants to bring a winning product back to Long Island.
Homecoming King (Top Player): Bill Guerin is the captain of the team and finished five points behind team scoring leader Mike Comrie, with 44. He's entering the final season of a two-year deal and you've got to think Guerin believes he can play a few more years.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): Kyle Okposo. The 20-year old budding power forward is the jewel of the Islanders prospects. Okposo was signed last December after Garth Snow did not like the way he was developing under University of Minnesota head coach Don Lucia's tutelage. In just nine games last season, Okposo put up five points and was a plus-3, which, despite just a handful of games, was the highest on the Islanders. There's plenty of pressure on him to succeed, but if he's able to play with the same fire as he did down the stretch last season, he'll be just fine and firmly plant himself as the centerpiece of the Islanders offensive rebuilding.
Best Expulsion (Addition by Subtraction): Is it possible to add Alexei Yashin to this list just for old time's sake? Gone are Miroslav Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko, Josef Vasicek, Dubielewicz, Shawn Bates, and Vesa Toskala's worst nightmare, Rob Davison in favor of youth. Satan and Fedotenko were paid over $7 million combined and only contributed 32 goals combined.
According to NHLNumbers.com, the Islanders have just under $14 million in cap space available, but with the focus now being on youth development, don't look for Garth Snow to make another Ryan Smyth-esque deal come March since the Isles will likely be far, far away from playoff contention. That money will possibly go towards a Mike Comrie extension, an experience backup if needed, or bubble wrap to protect Rick DiPietro.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): Doug Weight and his 10 goals last season were brought in for ... well, I just have no idea why. Another veteran presence perhaps? It couldn't have been for scoring; Weight hasn't hit the 20-goal plateau since the 2000-01 season when he was in Edmonton.
While his $4.1 million salary might be a tad high to some, it was the only way Garth Snow could entice Mark Streit to even think about leaving a playoff team in Montreal for the rebuilding Islanders. He's a much-needed offensive defenseman who had more points than any Islander player in 2007-08.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): Of all people, Mike Comrie led the team in penalty minutes last season, the true tough guys on this team are Brendan Witt, who is one of those guys who you hate playing against, but love having on your team. Witt is known for the heavy check, just ask Evgeni Malkin:
While the game was still close at 3-1 with just under four minutes left, Malkin did not return.
You also can't forget about 6-6, 245 pounds of Andy Sutton, who if he put his mind to it could challenge George Laraque for heavyweight champion of the NHL. We'll give him a pass for this fight with Gary Roberts last season, since we know how legendary Gary Roberts is amongst certain folk.
Teacher of the Year: Scott Gordon was the only candidate on Garth Snow's list without NHL coaching experience, which might have been the main reason Gordon was chosen. His work with the Providence Bruins over the past five seasons can now be geared towards working with young players at the NHL level and helping the Islanders towards Snow's vision of rebuilding with youth from within. Gordon will have the grand challenge of blending the Islander vets with their youth to achieve a desirable outcome.
The team averaged 2.3 goals a game last season and is expecting guys like Okposo, Bergenheim, Comeau, and Jeff Tambellini to contribute to the scoring to go along with their increased ice time. As Greg Logan of Newsday reported, "Gordon promises a "dramatically different" defensive style with more support leading to a quicker transition and what he describes as an aggressive fore-check designed to keep the puck in the offensive end as much as possible."
The Custodians (Goalies): Rick DiPietro is the man between the pipes here, forever. OK, maybe not forever, but for at least another 13 seasons, which are left on his contract. The good news is that DiPi was starting to become a solid net minder after all of the hoopla that surrounded him when the Isles drafted the Massachusetts native number one overall in 2000 (and later forced the team to trade Roberto Luongo. Yes, that's Roberto Luongo). The bad news? Two straight years, two straight surgeries on a hip for DiPietro. Not a good sign when you're 27 years old (Happy birthday by the way Ricky!) and have already had both hips operated on. That's grounds for a major F-bomb drop. Oh, sorry. You've already done that Rick.
Should DiPietro aggravate either hip, his backup, Joey MacDonald, has seventeen games of NHL experience under his belt. Wade Dubielewicz, who will go down in Islander lore for his performance on the final day of the season in 2007, declined a reported "low ball" offer from Garth Snow and scurried his way to Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL, leaving the Islanders without an experienced backup.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): The addition of Mark Streit gives Scott Gordon a legitimate puck moving defenseman who will also help an offense in need of a spark. Witt and Sutton bring the toughness; Chris Campoli, Freddy Meyer, Radek Martinek, and Bruno Gervais contributed seven goals total last season.
The Isles were 23rd in the league with 240 goals allowed, an average of 2.93 a game and 19th in the league on the penalty-kill. We know the offense is going to be light yet again in '08-09, but the defense will be slightly improved, but still poor.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Mike Comrie. He's entering a contract year and as Greg noted on Wednesday, another decent year for Mr. Hillary Duff and he could either be signed long-term by the team or become trade bait before the March 3 trade deadline.
Let's also not forget that Comrie joined the "hip surgery club" in the off-season along with Mike Sillinger and Rick DiPietro. He's playing for a contract this year, whether it's with the Islanders or someone else, so he'll have a lot of pressure on him to earn a raise from his $4 million salary. If that fails, he can always join the family business.
Greg Logan is on the Islanders beat for Newsday. And as far as blogs go, there's a vast selection to choose from. (Remember, the Islanders did invent the "Blog Box" last season). Whether it's BD Gallof, Dee Karl, Michael Schuerlein, Kevin Murphy, or our buddy Kevin Schultz, the Islanders have a large contingent in the blogosphere which is both passionate about the team and apparently very patient in waiting for the good times to return to Nassau Coliseum.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): The development of their young players. The future of the franchise depends on it. New York is a team, until Charles Wang's "Lighthouse Project" is approved by Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead, that will not be able to attract top-caliber free agents at market prices. Mark Streit agreed to leave Montreal because Garth Snow had to overpay for him. Unfortunately, for the Islanders in a salary-cap world, they can't throw money at every notable free agent and expect to be able to run a viable franchise.
If players like Comeau, Okposo, Tambellini, and 2008 first-round pick Joshua Bailey don't pan out, then that will spell disaster for the Islanders and really cripple them in the long-term.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: D
Prom Theme: "When I Was Young" by The Ramones. "When I was young it was more important / Pain more painful and laughter much louder". This team will take its lumps and hear the groans from Islander fans and hockey world. The pressure is now on Garth Snow to turn the team around. He forced out a coach who didn't want to believe in his philosophy; so now that Scott Gordon is running with that mantra, it's squarely on Snow's shoulders to make Islander fans forget about the circus-like atmosphere that's surrounded the team the past few summers.
Expected Graduation: Out of the playoffs for the second straight year, but moving in the right direction. The firing of Ted Nolan might have split Islander Country down the middle, but at least fans know that there is a plan in place with Garth Snow and Charles Wang at the helm. Youth will be served on the ice and behind the bench, so the team can expect some rather large growing pains, but know that while it might be a few years before the Islanders see the playoffs again; the ship is slowly, slowly being righted.